The fight for a higher minimum wage is finding new battle-grounds in the nation's cities, which are increasingly debating local wage requirements. “It's going to be happening all over the country, city by city,” says Maude Hurd, president of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

In late June, Hurd met with 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards to get a $7.50 minimum wage ordinance on Albuquerque, N.M.'s October municipal election ballot. Edwards says an increase in the federal minimum wage, $5.15 per hour, is not soon likely, and proponents are seeking other avenues. “This is an extraordinarily important issue,” he says.

So far, citywide minimum wage increases have been hotly contested and, in most cases, short-lived, as well. New Orleans helped successfully establish a general minimum wage in 2002, when voters approved a plan to keep the city $1 above the federal minimum wage. However, it was overturned by the state Supreme Court after business groups argued that it violated the Louisiana Constitution.

Santa Monica, Calif., created a minimum wage that applied to a coastal and downtown tourist area. Set at $10.50 per hour for businesses that offered certain health benefits and $12.25 without health benefits, the ordinance was defeated on the 2002 ballot. San Francisco approved an $8.50 minimum wage in 2003, which went into effect early last year.

The idea of city wage ordinances took off in Wisconsin and recently led to state action blocking cities from creating a minimum wage that would be higher than state requirements. Madison, Milwaukee and La Crosse each created a minimum wage of $5.70, with a formula for future increases.

Lawmakers in Wisconsin, however, cut a deal with Gov. Jim Doyle to preempt citywide minimum wages in exchange for approving a $5.70 statewide minimum wage, followed by an increase to $6.50 on June 1, 2006. Compared to city wage laws, it would put more restraint on increases in later years and take away cities' power to fight for a higher minimum wage.

Albuquerque's battle began this spring when City Councilor Martin Heinrich proposed putting a $7.15 minimum wage on the October municipal ballot. His proposal was narrowly defeated by the City Council in June, after the mayor and other critics argued the minimum wage should be set nationally. Mayor Martin Chavez took the argument to the U.S. Conference of Mayors at its annual meeting in Chicago in June and won approval of a resolution calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage. Without an increase, the resolution said, “an increasingly complex patchwork of minimum wage rates across the country is the likely alternative.” Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, a petition drive was launched to get a $7.50 minimum wage on the ballot.

ACORN, pushing the issue throughout the country, has been haunted by its wage record. During the 1990s, the group went to a California court to avoid paying the minimum wage to its own workers. It claimed a minimum wage would infringe on its constitutional rights as a political advocate because it would be able to hire fewer people, and its employees would be less sympathetic to the poor. A state appellate court ruled against the group in 1995, saying the arguments were an “absurdity.”

Jim Ludwick is an Albuquerque, N.M., newspaper reporter.